Margaret Sullivan: Journalists should not give disinformation ‘more of a megaphone’

In a conversation with the Global Editors Network, Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former public editor of the New York Times, talks about the friction between politicians and journalists, American distrust in the media, and whether it’s the role of journalists to stop the spread of disinformation.

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Margaret Sullivan

GEN: One Pew Research Center study found that 52 percent of Americans believe news organisations don’t do well reporting political issues fairly. This view is upheld mostly by people who don’t consider that it’s acceptable for news organisations to favour a political party. What can be done to address this issue?

Margaret Sullivan: We have to continue to do our work as well, as fairly, and as impartially as possible. I do think we need to listen to what our readers and viewers are telling us. And over the past year, I’ve been making a big effort to go and speak to non-journalists and people outside the coastal areas of the United States — to hear from regular voters about their level of trust in the media. While they do have a number of disagreements or problems with what the news media is doing, most of the people I talked to did feel they had access to credible news. I found that fairly hopeful.

Many of the regular voters cited local news organisations, such as a local newspaper or a local television station, as being credible news sources. Others cited national public radio or national newspapers including the Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. They would regularly say, ‘I watch Lester Holt!’, which means they watch the NBC evening news.

I am not saying everyone was completely happy with their news sources. But they did feel like they could inform themselves, especially if they tried to have a number of different sources they compared and contrasted. For example, if they’re watching Fox News and then go on to watch CNN, they recognise that they’re getting two different versions and they come to their own conclusions based on that.

Jay Rosen believes that journalists should state their biases. Do you agree?

I think that Jay is very thoughtful, but I don’t agree entirely with that. I think that journalists do need to maintain a strong element of impartiality. Transparency is a good idea if there are conflicts of interest. But in terms of reporting on straight news rather than opinion writing, I would prefer for journalists to attempt to be as impartial and unbiased as possible.

Publics Globally Want Unbiased News Coverage, but Are Divided on Whether Their News Media Deliver, by the Pew Research Center

Is it the role of journalists to fight against and stop the spread of disinformation?

I think a journalist’s role is that news consumers know that a lot of the information that is circulating is false. We, as journalists, have to identify it and not to give it any more of a megaphone than it already has. We also have to call out falsehoods when we see them.

I think it’s important to let people know about how social media is spreading disinformation at a pace and at a volume that we have never seen before. I don’t know whether you call that ‘fighting it’, but I think we’re informing people about it, and we’re also presenting accurate information that can be turned to as an antidote to the disinformation that is out there. One of the things that people need to do when they’re gathering information and news is to consider the source to the extent that we, and other traditional reality based news sources, can be reliably turned to to see if something is true or not. I think that’s the biggest service we can do.

Should journalists be using the same techniques that some of the bad guys use? Is there anything to be learnt from the way ‘fake news’ is distributed?

I think we need to distribute our work as effectively as possible so maybe that’s kind of a lesson. But I don’t hold up the creators or distributors of false information as anything we want to emulate in any way.

I’d also like to make the point that I don’t like using the expression ‘fake news’ because I think it has been so tainted and so weaponised. What it originally meant — which was false information dressed up as a news story — has turned into any story that a particular person or a politician doesn’t like. It’s not really a useful term at this point. So what I prefer to say is disinformation, or false reports, or lies, or conspiracy theories, or hoaxes.

Does the Post have a specific approach to gaining people’s trust?

I think the way we gain people’s trust is to get it right, to quickly fess up to corrections and correct them, and to serve as a fair and honest gatherer and distributor of the news.

An example that springs to mind is the story of the woman who approached the Post with a false tale about Roy Moore. After it surfaced that she was linked to Project Veritas, the Post released a video recording of a conversation with her. What was the reaction to this level of transparency?

The more that we can show our work — and that’s a good example of doing so — the more trustworthy we will be perceived as. That can include publishing original documents, including video and audio of interviews where appropriate. We can take people inside the news process. This way, we are not simply saying ‘trust us’, but rather showing why people should trust us. I think that does engender trust.

I would say that the Post’s reporting on Roy Moore was groundbreaking and it obviously was taken seriously. The Post did not set out to try to elect a Democrat — I want to be clear about that. In its reporting on Moore, the Post certainly told people more about who this candidate was and in the end he was defeated. I therefore think we’re doing our jobs when we clearly reveal who people really are and that can take some digging and overcoming some real difficulties.

How has Trump’s presidency redefined journalism in the US?

I don’t think it has redefined journalism. I think it has presented challenges to journalists. I think we have seen a lot of excellent enterprise investigative reporting and I think that the President’s disparagement of the news media is very damaging. It eats away at one of the most important foundations of democracy, which is a free press, so I find it troubling, disturbing, and destructive. But I don’t think it should mean that we give up or that journalism has been redefined. Good journalism is more needed now than ever. And we have to learn how to overcome the particular challenges that we now have.

We have to relentlessly remind readers of factual reality. And in doing so, we also remind them of the importance of the independent press. A specific example of this is fact-checking in real time within the body of a story or, on TV, in simultaneous information in a bottom of the screen crawler or chyron.

Have Trump’s attacks on the press affected the morale of journalists — or has it given them an incentive to work harder than ever?

I think there’s a little of both there. And speaking from my point of view — and I’ve been in the business for a number of decades now — it is distressing to have the President of the United States calling the press the enemy of the people. It’s distressing when his base of followers picks up on that and says the same kinds of things. But at the same time, it should also underline our importance and make our resolve stronger to do our jobs as well as possible.

Do you think Trump’s attacks on the press have an effect on the rest of the world?

I do. I think that the US, for quite a while, has been seen as a place that cherishes free expression and a beacon for press and speech rights. When totalitarian countries, or those who are struggling to remain democracies, see that the leader of the United States has such scorn for the news media, I think it absolutely has a destructive effect.

In an interview with the Spiegel, France’s president Emmanuel Macron also speaks negatively of the press to some extent, ‘If you like, postmodernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy. The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one. Since then, trust has evaporated in everything and everyone. I am sometimes surprised that it is the media that are the first ones to exhibit a lack of trust in grand narratives’. What do you think about this?

Politicians and journalists will always be at odds and that’s nothing new. It is our role to scrutinise, to be sceptical, and in some cases, to be critical. So I think that’s fine, it’s appropriate. And it’s understandable that public office holders will not like that and push back against it. President Trump is in a new and disturbing category of doing that.

In one of your columns, you wrote ‘As journalists cautiously approach the line of what’s previously been unacceptable, it’s often Trump himself who pushes them over’. How has Trump’s presidency pushed ethical boundaries of what should or should not be reported on?

I could write four books on that. But just speaking about the question whether journalists should be writing about Trump’s mental state, I think it can be appropriate to write about it. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to speculate about whether he has a mental illness based on the opinions of people who either aren’t medical professionals or are medical professionals but haven’t examined him. I think it’s a very treacherous area and it should be handled with a lot of caution.

How do you see Trump’s mental health being reported on?

Some have taken it a little too far in my opinion.

In your column about American distrust of the media, some of the people you interviewed expressed that they want ‘just the facts, with less opinion attached’. In another column you wrote that the media’s ‘cycle of freakout — shock, reaction, insult, rejoinder — has to stop’. Do you believe that there is a lot of opinion to the expense of factual reporting?

It’s very hard to generalise about all media or the entire American press core. But I do think one of the things I have heard from people over and over is that they’d like to see more of a clear separation between news reporting and opinion writing or opinion commentating. They say they don’t like the first round of reporting of a situation to be so swept up into immediate commentary and opinion. They want things to be more clearly delineated: here’s a story and over here is an editorial or a column and we know which is which.

But this becomes very hard when your news is coming to you on your phone or from Facebook. It’s not like the old days where the front page of the newspaper is news and the editorial pages are opinion. It’s much more disaggregated than that. And so, particularly on cable news, there is 24-hour-a-day parsing and opinionising about everything that happens — and I think that wears on people. They could turn it off, so maybe they do like it to some extent, but they find it to be a little bit out of control.

24-hour cable news has been around for about 20 years. Before that — and people like to wax nostalgic about this — you had your national newspaper, your local newspaper, and the three TV networks. They were all telling you more or less the same things and you could more or less trust them.

That whole ecosystem has changed and I think the biggest thing that’s changed about it in America is the coming of Fox News — it has turned the whole thing on its head. Their slogan has been ‘Fair and Balanced’, but actually what it has been is set up as an opposition to the mainstream press. I think those are some of the sources of this constant cycle of freak out. I am not saying only Fox, but all of those that then respond to what they see on Fox or on other conservative media outlets.

From over here in Europe, it sometimes seems like we’re very clued into the things that Donald Trump says: his referring to certain countries as ‘shitholes’ certainly blew up while his policies seem to be reported on in a less obvious manner. Are news reports from all news media often too focused on he said/she said?

I think that’s a major fault of the news media in recent years. There has been a focus on personality and outrage — on the horserace — during campaigns and on the palace intrigue during administrations, and certainly less focus on policy and substance. While people say ‘I want substance; we don’t want all this silly stuff’, what we find out is that they actually are reading the palace intrigue and they are interested in it.

I am comparing the amount of interest in a deadly serious economic policy story versus Trump’s latest tweet. There’s probably immediate conversational interest in the latter and while the other one is more important, I am not sure if it’s something you would be chatting about with your friends. It’s human nature. As people, we tend to be interested in conflict, in what the president is saying that is getting people upset; exactly what you would expect to be interesting.

That’s why I think we have such a responsibility to take questions and issues of really important substance, and tell these stories in a way that does make them engaging and interesting to people. One way to make these potentially dry stories engaging is to report them in part through the people they affect or will affect. That doesn’t mean that such stories become merely anecdotal, but that they touch us on a human level. In a way that drives home the point that these are the things that are going to affect people’s lives, their pocketbooks, and their families.

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